Vol. 23, No. 1
FECS Millennium Project
Working Party for the History
Choosing Europes Top 100 Chemists: A Difficult Task
The millennium bug does not only bite computers. Human beings are susceptible
to it, too.
Occasionally, this bug may lead to bizarre behavior patterns that have
only one thing in common: an irresistible desire for some kind of celebration
in the year 2000. Often, there is only the foggiest idea as to what
is actually being celebrated. That it is notionally 2000 years since
the birth of Christ is quite forgotten in general. An additional irony
lies in the fact that recent evidence from history, archaeology, and
astronomy suggests a birthdate about seven years earlier, so the real
millennium came and went unnoticed in the early 1990s.
However that may be, the grand spirit of revelry and bonhomie cannot
be quenched by such mundane considerations, and celebration there shall
be. Nor are societies to be left behind in the general euphoria
FECS Millennium Project
In 1998, the Federation of European Chemical Societies (FECS) proposed
to celebrate in its own way and to mark the occasion by proclaiming
to the world names of the top 100 European chemists. Inclusion in this
hall of fame would do little for the individuals concerned for the simple
reason that they all had to be dead. However, it might gladden the hearts
of surviving relatives of a few. It would minister to the pride of nations
whose sons and daughters were so honored, and (if handled properly by
the spin doctors) could be a useful reminder to the general public of
just how much they owe to the chemists of Europe. And that would be
a very good thing, indeed! The only problem was this: How on earth does
one try to establish such a list and get general agreement for it? Ask
20 chemists for a short list of their own candidates and you will end
up with 20 different answers. Try to be objective and you just give
up for lack of agreed criteria. Thus, quantitative data gleaned from
citation indexes may testify to volume but not quality of a chemists
work. Being a Nobel prizewinner in chemistry was a possible criterion,
but there were not enough of these from EuropeNobel prizes only
started in 1901and all Nobel prizewinners are not equal. There
are no sales figures to help us establish which releases are "top
of the pops" (and no comparable audience reactions, come to that!).
So what do you do? You ask the public.
In this case, one can hardly inquire of the whole population of Europe.
Instead, FECS made the sensible decision to devolve the early stages
of nomination to the member societies. Each was asked to provide its
own list. It was suggested that working parties should be established,
and guidelines were offered. Thus, persons proposed should have transformed
chemical science and exerted a worldwide influence. They should have
conducted the major part of their work in Europe, and so on. The surprising
feature of this millennium celebration was that the period concerned
stretched back not 2000 or even 1000 years, but a little over 200. At
one stage, it was suggested that the Chemical Revolution (whatever that
was) should be a good starting point.
This milestone seemed generally understood to be the reforms associated
with Lavoisier at the end of the 18th century, though in
practice the list included a few who predatedor even opposedthis
So, at a stroke, chemical giants such as Paracelsus, Glauber, van
Helmont, Halesand even Robert Boylewere excluded automatically.
And there were certainly no alchemists. Still, rules are rules, and
most countries produced a response broadly on the agreed lines.
The result was a spectacular demonstration of variable response. Eight
countries did not reply at all Whereas most that did (including the
United Kingdom) made an effort to be fair to everyone and to supply
an international list, the names provided by no fewer than 10 countries
consisted exclusively of their own nationals. This possibility was quite
unexpected, but not formally excluded by the rules. Possibly, these
respondents thought that everyone would play the game this way.
Or maybe they just felt the need to keep their own end up. But if
all had done this, it is hard to see how a reasonable list could emerge,
because each respondent was given equal weight in the analysis. It would
have meant the same number of names from (say) France, Slovenia, Italy,
Portugal, and Ireland. Therefore, for the early compilation stages,
it seemed quite fair to set aside the submittals from these 10 societies.
That left 20 others who had all tried to be genuinely international.
Gratifyingly, these included some of the smaller societies, such as
those from Finland, Slovenia, and Cyprus.
article by Prof. Colin Russell (Department of History of Science and
Technology, Open University, Milton Keynes, England MK6 7AA, UK) was
commissioned by Chemistry in Britain and published by that magazine
in Vol. 36, pp. 5052, February 2000
of Europes 100 distinguished chemists was compiled by the Federation
of European Chemical Societies (FECS). We thank Prof. Russell, Chemistry
in Britain, and FECS for permission to reproduce the article in full
here. Thanks also to Prof. Lauri Niinistö of the Helsinki University
of Technology, Laboratory of Inorganic and Analytical Chemistry, for
providing the illustrations and photographs.